Simon’s Picks: Sibelius Symphonies and Violin Concerto

Seattle Symphony President & CEO Simon Woods shares his favorite recordings of the Sibelius symphonies as we prepare for our Sibelius festival in March. The first concert in that series happens on March 12 and features Finlandia and the first two symphonies.

Sibelius’ Symphonies have had a very fortunate recording history, with performances covering the entire gamut from icy and austere to warm and romantic – and it’s perhaps a mark of the greatness of these works that that they succeed in such widely differing interprations. This choice of seven recordings of the symphonies features some of Sibelius’ greatest interpreters on disc: Paavo Berglund, Colin Davis, Neeme Järvi, Robert Kajanus, Herbert von Karajan, Lorin Maazel and Osmo Vänskä. It’s by necessity a personal selection, as in reality each of these conductors has something to say about every single one of the symphonies. But these performances strike me as being particularly special in communicating the spirit and magic of Sibelius’s symphonic legacy.

KarajanSymphony No. 1
Sibelius’ music has not historically been highly esteemed in Germany, and unlike in the UK or U.S., it has never become core repertoire for the Berlin Philharmonic. However, Herbert von Karajan loved Sibelius, and the composer himself much admired Karajan’s early recordings of his music as a young man. The First Symphony brings out the absolute best from Karajan and the great German orchestra, with a lush romanticism that reveals this work’s roots in the music of Tchaikovsky and Wagner.

JarviSymphony No. 2
Neeme Järvi has always had a dynamic and dramatic approach to Sibelius and he has recorded the complete cycle twice, both with the Gothenburg Symphony in Sweden. The earlier of the two recordings of the Second Symphony is extraordinary – propulsive, energetic, passionate, yet never allowing the music to become overblown. It’s the perfect introduction to Sibelius’ Symphonies, and one of the most thrilling performances of the piece ever recorded.

KajanusSymphony No. 3
Robert Kajanus and Sibelius were close friends from the 1890s until Kajanus’s death in 1933. Kajanus was the very first champion of Sibelius’s music, and his recording –made in the 1930s when he was in his 70s–take us as close to Sibelius’ own voice as we can get. The playing is somewhat rough around the edges, but the music making has deep inner conviction and authority, never more so than the surprisingly slow rendition of the middle movement of the Third. The fervant intensity of this performance dispels any notion of the this being Sibelius’ “classical” symphony.

VanskaSymphony No. 4
Osmo Vanska’s reputation as a Sibelius interpreter is second to none, and this recording with his Minnesota Orchestra deservedly won a Grammy in 2013. There’s an amazing unity about the way in which conductor and orchestra live and breathe together through the spare and haunting 4th Symphony. Textures are transparent, everything is beautifully articulated, and it’s recorded with startling immediacy. Although one of the most recent recordings of this work, it’s an instant classic of the Sibelius discography.

BerglundSymphony No. 5
Paavo Berglund is one of the most important interpreters of Sibelius’ music, and recorded the complete cycle of symphonies three times. This is from the middle cycle recorded in the 1980s with the Helskini Philharmonic – the orchestra that gave the first performances of most of Sibelius’ orchestral works. The musicians, as you’d expect, have this music in their blood. But it’s more than just an authentic voice – Berglund has a rhythmic fluidity that few conductors achieve, giving the music space to breathe and making you listen in new ways to the awe-inspiring sonic landscapes of Finland’s national composer.

DavisSymphony No. 6
Colin Davis championed Sibelius’ Symphonies long before they became mainstream, and no lover of these works would be without his famous cycle recorded in Boston in the 1970s. Later recordings of the Sixth– especially those by Scandinavian conductors –tend to be more austere and enigmatic; Davis on the other hand employs the full glorious sonority of the BSO to turn the Sixth into a consoling and embracing experience. It’s a totally convincing interpretation, and one of the best played performances ever of this work.

MaazelSymphony No. 7
Nobody captures the sweeping majesty of the Seventh like Lorin Maazel, and the Vienna Philharmonic’s playing is sublime, despite their relative unfamiliarity with the work at the time of recording. Noble and uplifting, this is one the great Sibelius recordings. It’s also interesting to look at this cover from the original 1960’s LP and be reminded just how close Finland is to Washington State in its landscape of lakes and forests.

TetzlaffViolin Concerto
The Seattle Symphony’s Principal Guest Conductor, Thomas Dausgaard, has not yet committed his outstanding interpretations of Sibelius’ symphonies to disc. But we can enjoy his superb musicianship in this recording of the Violin Concerto with Christian Tetzlaff. Tetzlaff plays the work as if it’s a matter of a life and death, and the orchestral accompaniment is thrillingly dark and dramatic.

Posted on January 13, 2015